21 Sep 2020
As COVID-19 and the looming flu season threaten a possible double whammy this year, Dr. Debra Spicehander, co-chief of Infectious Disease at Northern Westchester Hospital, urges people to get a flu shot as soon as possible.
“It’s more important than ever to get a flu shot this year,” she says. “Covid-19 and the flu virus are both transmitted by respiratory droplets and share some common symptoms. While we don’t have a vaccine for Covid-19, we do have a flu vaccine. We urge people to protect themselves and their loved ones by getting the flu vaccine as soon as possible.”
According to Dr. Spicehandler, both Covid-19 and the flu can be transmitted through sneezing, coughing, or touching an object– such as a phone, computer keyboard, or doorknob–that someone with the virus has recently handled. While COVID-19 is the more aggressive virus, many of its symptoms are similar to the flu, including fever, cough, sore throat, runny or stuffed nose, body aches, headache, fatigue, and sometimes nausea, diarrhea, and vomiting.
“With COVID, the key points of difference include loss of taste and difficulty breathing,” says Dr. Spicehandler, “but because the characteristics of these viruses are similar, it’s important to speak to your doctor about testing. Don’t self-diagnose. If you mistakenly attribute your symptoms to the flu, you could risk spreading the coronavirus, which is more easily transmitted, to those around you. Follow proper precautions and get tested to be sure.”
While Dr. Spicehandler says it’s unlikely people will get the flu and COVID-19 simultaneously, she warns against skipping the flu vaccine.
“If you’re a fairly young and healthy person, you could get the flu and recover. But if you then become infected with the coronavirus, your immune system will be weakened and the impact of both viruses could be devastating. By getting the flu vaccine, you’re significantly lowering your risk for complications.
“The same is true for people who have recovered from COVID-19,” she adds. “A flu vaccine adds another layer of protection against serious complications that may result from having both viruses. The flu can significantly aggravate health problems for those with any type of obstructive pulmonary disease, which is common in patients who’ve had COVID-19.”
For people wondering whether the flu vaccine is effective, Dr. Spicehandler explains that each year, scientists monitor flu activity worldwide to determine which flu strains are likely to cause illness, then develop a vaccine to match.
“Some years they get it right,” she says. “But even if the vaccine isn’t a perfect match and you get the flu, you will get a much milder case.”
According to Dr. Spicehandler, it takes approximately two weeks after vaccination to have full protection against the flu. So, unless you have a life-threatening allergy to eggs or a history of Guillain-Barré syndrome, she recommends getting the vaccine now—before the height of flu season.
One caveat: Do not get the vaccine if you are currently sick because it may not be as effective when your immune system has been exhausted by fighting another virus.
“I get my flu shot every year in September and it carries me through to May,” says Dr. Spicehandler. “Play it safe. Protect yourself by getting your flu shot and encouraging those you love to do the same.